Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Have any of you ever been in a pet store and seen a hamster globe?

It’s a clear plastic ball, about the size of a softball. Its two halves lock or open with a twist, and they have several air holes. You put a hamster or a mouse inside, lock the ball closed, put it on the floor, and watch the little critter inside roll it all over the room.

A cat will go crazy batting at the ball and trying to snag what’s inside.

But cats are smart. They quickly decide they can’t get to the hamster for a meal. But it’s all a game, and they have great fun playing with the ball.

Imagine for a minute you are enclosed in a transparent sphere. From inside your bubble you can observe everything. You are cozy because you are shielded from anything that does not agree with you. You are protected from disturbing noises, disagreeable odors, and difficult people. You are isolated from the world.

Everyone, from a monarch to a digger of ditches, has learned from childhood on to create and live in a closed shell.

Such a shell is built around a person’s “me,” a person’s “I.” It’s a protective defense.

Remember the old Star Trek series? Well, such a shell is like the force field around a Klingon battle cruiser. It’s designed to repel, or else filter, anything that is not in agreement with what it protects.

Shells enclose a very small world.

Too often one’s shell is so tight it becomes stifling, which leads to deceptive thinking. That is, if anything that manages to insinuate its way into that small world is not in agreement with the center—the “I” or “me”— the center suffers.

As long as one is bound by one’s small world, one behaves like a bird in a room that has no open windows or doors. A trapped bird flutters against walls, not sure of what it is doing but struggling to escape confinement. In its struggle it often injures itself.

Some humans allow themselves to be trapped birds. They ask “What am I?” Or, “Who am I?” Or, “Do I like this or that?” They struggle endlessly within their shell and harm themselves.

Paradoxically, their concept of “I” is what, in the first place, creates their small world and limits its boundaries. Ironically, this “I” is self-created. It is delusion.

In Zen there is no “I.”

Some religions teach that every human being is a worthless worm, born into sin and living in transgression unless he or she accepts certain manmade principles.

Making threats of recrimination, or dangling carrots of reprieve, is no way to treat the human spirit. Such practices harden people’s shells and strengthen their notion of “I.” People become fearful and guilt-ridden. That causes them to withdraw, to close in on themselves and shrink their world.

A life based on the “I” concept is abstraction, not existence.

Zen realizes existence directly.

Think about it: Zen realizes existence directly.

According to researchers, human consciousness develops largely in one’s teenage years. By consciousness I mean a sense of being-in-the-world. Consciousness is a background against which one’s existence is defined and measured. Consciousness means being coexistent with others.

However, the necessity of coexisting with others often encourages the development of the egocentric “I,” and one looks at all externals as so many tools, so much equipment. Friends and associates become equipment. Parents or children become equipment. Mates become equipment. They exist, in small world terms, only as things to validate the “me,” the “I.” Of course, this equipmentizing reaches in two directions. One’s items of equipment, in return, also treat everyone else as equipment.

Think about it.

With everyone thinking “I,” “me,” and “them,” is it any wonder there is so much alienation in the world? Political systems clash. Christians and non-Christians wrangle. Arabs and Jews disagree.

When one lives in a closed shell everything outside becomes equipment designed to serve the needs of the inner “me.” Everything is depersonalized.

As an example, consider this teacup I have in my hand. At face value this cup is an object for holding tea to quench my thirst. But no more than a tree is an object meant for lumber to build a shelter for me is this cup a mere thing designed for my need or my pleasure.

Perceive this cup. Discover it. Don’t judge it, thinking that you don’t care for its shape, or that its color is not agreeable to your personal taste. Take the time to experience this cup for the unique thing it is. It has shape. It has form. It has color. It has texture. It has an essence of its own.

Furthermore, this cup may seem identical to a matching cup that was made at the same time, but each of the two cups is its own self.

Do away with small worlds. Banish Klingon force fields.

That would make a dandy bumper sticker: BANISH KLINGON FORCE FIELDS.

Experience a tree. Experience this cup or that cup. These are not mere things. Each is significant. Each is as important as any one of us. These items are not pieces of equipment intended to fulfill our ego. Other human beings are not pieces of equipment designed to validate our self.

Everything is unique. Every thing is what it is. Every thing, and every one, is.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


In most of our meetings I have talked about Soto Zen, which is more or less the practice this group follows. I was trained in the Soto school, and its no-frills simplicity appeals to me. So I carry it on.

I occasionally talk about the Rinzai school of Zen. I have a limited degree of familiarity with it, having attended Rinzai groups in California, and in Arkansas with Keido Fukashima.

Both Rinzai and Soto emphasize awakening through meditation, zazen. They do differ in their practice. Rinzai, unlike Soto, uses koans, chants, and sutras. Furthermore, it believes in sudden, rather than gradual, awakening.

Please understand there is no better or best between the disciplines. What works for, or appeals to, one person may be a complete turn-off for another person.

I’m reminded of an old bluegrass song, recorded by the Stanley Brothers in the 1950’s. It was called “You Go to Your Church, I’ll Go to Mine.”

I understand anyone with a cell phone can download a ringtone of “You Go to Your Church, I’ll Go to Mine.”

But I’m drifting.

Soto and Rinzai are acknowledged to be the two main sects of Zen. However, in Japan there is a third school of Zen called Obaku-shu.

Compared to Soto and Rinzai, which date back to the 1200’s, Obaku is a relative youngster. But, having been established in Japan in 1661, by Chinese masters, it’s not some bubbly New Age craze.

Obaku’s main temple is located in Uri Japan, halfway between Kyoto and Nara.

Several of those Chinese monks who came to Japan were known not only for their wisdom in living in the Tao, but also for their calligraphy skills. In those days, and even now, writing in many parts of Asia was and is more than a way of recording information; it was and is considered an art form.

Three of the masters—Yinyuan Longqi, Mokuan Shoto, and Sokuhi Nyoitsu—were so skilled they became known as “The Three Brushes of Obaku.”

To quote the contemporary writer, Steven Heine: “. . . Obaku . . . left an imprint on Japanese Buddhism . . . and its impact . . . reached the fields of Japanese cultural techniques, such as printing and painting.”

Some of the old Obaku monks practiced what’s called spirit writing, also called automatic writing. It’s a procedure during which a person writes something in a free-wheeling manner, supposedly without knowing or realizing what they are writing. It’s a notion in spiritism that assumes the spirit of a dead person can dictate messages and even entire books to a living person.

As a curious and skeptical writer I’ve given automatic writing a try. It doesn’t work for me. All that come out is gibberish, much like speaking in tongues.

I have to use my own brain rather than that of Shakespeare or Bodhidharma.

Obaku is not as basic as Soto Zen. Rather, it has some tenuous links with Rinzai, such as sutra chanting, relative conservatism, and intellectualism.

As Heinrich Dumoulin, the widely publish author on Buddhism, wrote: “Insofar as the Obaku belonged to the Rinzai tradition, zazen and koan practice were made part of daily life, but ritual was also . . . of considerable importance.”

Another noted writer on Buddhist tradition and practice, Helen J. Baroni, mentioned that Obaku is more conservative and intellectually inclined than Soto.

Now the most welcome words to those who listen to those who talk: “In conclusion . . .”

In conclusion, the establishment of Soto Zen is attributed to the Japanese master, Dogen Kigen. For Zen itself we acknowledge the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who came from India to China to teach “. . . a special transmission outside of scripture which did not depend on words.”

Using more than a few words, Bodhidharma supposedly said the following:

Buddhas don't save buddhas. If you use your mind to look for a buddha, you won't see the Buddha. As long as you look for a buddha somewhere else, you'll never see that your own mind is the Buddha. Don't use a buddha to worship a buddha. And don't use the mind to invoke a buddha. Buddhas don't recite sutras. Buddhas don't keep precepts. And buddhas don't break precepts. Buddhas don't keep or break anything. Buddhas don't do good or evil. To find a buddha, you have to see your nature.

The question of the day: What’s the difference between Buddha (with a capital letter) and buddha (with a small letter)?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Inmo is an informal, spoken Chinese word that means “it,” or “that,” or “this.” These words are used to indicate something that does not need explaining, something whose comprehension is intuitive. In ancient China, Buddhist masters and scholars used the word inmo to refer to something that cannot be described.

Can you grasp that? Something is nothing. Nothing is something.

The word inmo is similar to the word Tao, the Way.

The Tao that can be described is not the Way.

One of the aims of Buddhism is the recognition of reality, but, as we know, reality is something beyond words. Because reality is as elusive a concept as truth, in earliest Buddhism reality or truth was thought of as inmo.

Now, your mind probably feels like a clump of string that has been arranged by a cat. So sit back and relax.

* * * * *

Zen Master Dogen Kigen was a rare bird for his time in that he opposed what he saw as the less intuitive and more institutional path Zen was following in Japan. Dogen did not picture himself as some sort of savior, but he believed he was passing along the teachings developed by the Buddha the way the Buddha intended them to be conveyed.

Dogen maintained that all beings are Buddha-nature, and that Buddha-nature and impermanence are one.

Because Dogen’s ideas have shaped the foundation of what is called Soto Zen, his personal concept of inmo is worth discussing. This talk is based on a discourse Dogen gave in the year 1242.

Remember that Dogen was known to hammer home a point by repetition, by saying something over and over, each time the same way or else a different way. Dogen also rambled.

So do I.

* * * * *

Dogen cited an earlier master, who had lived in the 900s, saying that if one wants to attain inmo—or “it”—one must be a person who is it. If one is it, they need not worry about attaining it.

That is a paradox, so don’t try to make sense of it. Or of “it.”

Just pay attention. Every thing will eventually come together.

If not today, another time.

* * * * *

Dogen was once asked if one attained inmo with the mind or with the body. That would be like asking Picasso if he painted with his brain or with his heart.

Dogen’s answer was that in Soto Zen, the way is attained with body and mind together. It—The Way—is achieved by letting go of the mind, and discarding views and interpretations.

Clarifying the mind, while hearing sounds and seeing sights, is attaining inmo with the body.

However, one should not be attached to the body. The body is a temporary thing. After one’s last breath, the body disappears, so why be attached to it?

To be aware is to be free from the idea of the self. This means not to be attached to the self because all too often the human self attaches to the past.

Jumping from Dogen’s time to contemporary time, the book The World is Flat, by Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman, asks whether one’s society has more dreams than memories, or more memories than dreams.

He defines dreams as the positive, life-affirming variety.

When people cling to how good they were in the past, they mislead themselves. That was then, and this is now.

To quote Friedman, “In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too many days looking backward. They see . . . . self-worth not . . . . in the present but in an imagined past.

“. . . . such societies . . . . cling to [the imagined past] like a rosary or a strand of worry beads.”

In Asian Zen temples small bells are commonly hung outdoors along the eaves where they can be moved by the wind. One breezy day a Zen monk said to the master, “Listen, listen. Is this event the sound of the bells? Is this event the sound of the wind?”

The master answered, “It is beyond the ringing of the bells and beyond the ringing of the wind. It is the ringing of your mind.”

“Then what is the mind?” the monk asked.

“The reason it—inmo—is ringing is that all is still,” answered the master.

Think about that for a minute. “The reason it is ringing is that all is still.

The words, “ringing of the mind” means that in the listener—whether the master or the monk, or you—at just the instant of the present, there is mindfulness. This mindfulness is called “the mind.”

If this mindfulness didn’t exist, how could the sound of bells be recognized as an event?

True hearing, true seeing, true any-of-the-senses, is recognized through mindfulness. That’s what the master meant when he said it was the ringing of the mind. Here, “it” is inmo. Something that is real, but inexpressible.

The mind ringing is beyond the ringing of the wind, beyond the ringing of the bells. The mind ringing is beyond the ringing of the mind.

How can “it”—inmo—be related to anything?

“It” is The Way.

The Way is Zen.

To rephrase the Tao Te Ching:

“It” can’t be named. “It” can’t be described. The “it” that may be named is not the eternal name.

However, the nameless is the beginning of all existence.

Zazen is awakening. Awakening is zazen.